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The Peace Of Christmas Eve
At Ghent five Americans—divided and far from home—held firm for a treaty that won their nation new respect, and began a lasting alliance
December 1960 | Volume 12, Issue 1
Thus the two insurmountable barriers to serious discussions had been removed. Of course the British Privy Council, with a bombastic assist from the eager Goulburn, could not refrain from stating their muchdiminished Indian ultimatum in abrupt and menacing tones: the Americans would accept this milder cathartic or negotiations would close. And, significantly, the note laid claim to a small helping of Maine. With confidence the British waited for the next mail pouch from their commanders in America; the news, they were sure, would justify making the peace treaty a real-estate deed—a touch of Maine, a bit of New York, an island, a fort, a port here and there.
The British note was delivered to a house whose occupants were getting on one another’s nerves. The confined living quarters and the frustrating pursuit of peace were taking their toll. None of the other American commissioners was long at ease with the querulous John Quincy. Bayard, who for six months had endured Adams’ company in Russia, thought the man “singularly cold and repulsive”; it is tragic when one reflects that Bayard was the closest thing to a friend Adams had in Ghent. And Clay, who by a mocking quirk of fate had rooms adjoining those of the commissioner from Massachusetts, grew even further apart from him. Not only were there extensive political differences, but Clay gambled, enjoyed foul cigars, did much to increase the landlord’s corkage profits, and reputedly gave vain chase to a resisting chambermaid. He emptied his room of card players and went to bed at five in the morning, just as John Quincy Adams was rising with the sun to begin his daily study of the Bible. When the day’s meetings and miscellaneous occupations were over, Adams joined the others at a four o’clock dinner and suffered through two more hours of cigar stink, bad wine, and desultory conversation. Most evenings he took a walk about the city—alone, he wrote his wife, because no one would go with him. He was in bed by nine.
By late September the three-storied house on the Rue des Champs resembled an isolated boarding school during winter term. Its occupants were tired of one another’s company, depressed by the plight of their country, and numb from British diplomatic attacks. They wrangled over trifles. For days they passionately disputed over which of their messengers and secretaries would carry which dispatch—and ended by not sending the dispatches at all. Gallatin and Bayard began to show signs of “despondency.” Momentarily they talked of complying with some of the terms in the British note of September 19, but Adams and Clay, acting in concert for a change, stiffened their resolution. It was well they did; for otherwise the British might never have had to give way in the note which now arrived on October 8.
The first American reaction to the note was circumspect but optimistic. For five days Adams and his companions drafted, edited, and debated their answer. Adams raged. He was violently opposed to accepting the Privy Council’s ultimatum on the Indians, softened though it was when stripped of its rhetoric. He wanted to match the “arrogance” of the fifteen-page British note word for word, insult for insult. He even exhumed Monroe’s instructions and decided that he and his colleagues should, after all, advise the British that it was to their own advantage to give up Canada. Gallatin and Clay tried to reason with him, but it was Bayard, being “perfectly friendly and confidential,” who calmed him down—by producing a bottle of Chambertin and dispensing solace and prudence along with the wine. Two days later, at noon on October 14, Adams joined the others in Clay’s room and grudgingly signed his name to their answer.
That answer spewed forth a torrent of words on the subject of Indians, but the British mandate on Indian pacification was accepted, however ungraciously. It was, said the American commissioners, similar to their own suggestions on the matter (suggestions which had been made, strangely enough, in September by the same John Quincy Adams who went livid when he saw the words in British handwriting). In conclusion, the Americans asked for a complete treaty project from the British, to which they would respond with one of their own. “May it please God,” intoned Adams, after the note had been sent, “to forgive our enemies, and to turn their hearts!”
What the Lord did to British hearts will remain a celestial mystery. In any event, on October 17, while the British commissioners were considering their rejoinder, it was their turn to receive bad news from America. On September 11, Thomas Macdonough, working his ships as if they were water-borne carrousels, had outlasted a superior British naval force in Plattsburg Bay, and Sir George Prévost, who was to have severed New England from the not-so-United States, had sunk in spirit as his naval brothers were sinking in fact and promptly marched his intimidating horde back to Canada. A few days later, Robert Ross, the general who had put the torch to Washington, lay dying near unconquered Baltimore, listening to the same bomb bursts that provoked patriotic verse in Francis Scott Key.